Saturday, August 8, 2015

When the story unfolds differently, still Esperanza...

We are home... from that land of majestic volcanoes, lush rain-forests and ancient Mayan ruins and from being face-to-face with our Compassion daughter, Esperanza

These beautiful horses took us to the peak of Pacaya Volcano.
When your desire is to see, to know, to touch, to understand — with an openness of mind and heart — that is a pilgrimage. And like all pilgrimages, you cannot remain the same at the end of such a journey. Pilgrimages lead you to reflect on your own identity and purpose.
A pilgrimage leads to changed and restored relationships. It’s a result of not visiting the poor, but visiting with the poor.
Visiting with the poor becomes another expression of the love of God and of community. And this idea is deeply ingrained in God’s desire and gift for wholeness.
It’s a mutual embrace of life as it can be.
Friends, it truly was "a mutual embrace of life as it can be" --- beautifully sacred, like being on holy ground.

Ten days before our departure date, I wrote these words...
We are beyond excited to hop on that plane. I have a feeling that Guatemala will take a hold of our hearts in a very special way. 
We will meet our Esperanza and we will witness esperanza... hope.
I am excited, actually beyond excited. Yet, to be honest... I am, at the same time, scared of the many unknowns and of how our hearts will be broken afresh.
But I am keeping my eyes on Jesus because He is our blessed esperanza and because broken is the most blessed you can be... and I am looking forward to that wild joy that will follow this yes!
Little did I know just how true those words would ring in the coming days. A few days later, just one week before our departure date, I got word from Compassion Canada about some news they received from Compassion Guatemala.

Our Esperanza, at age 17, is with child, was recently married, and will be leaving the Compassion program effectively immediately. This visit will be our final goodbye.

This is not how I imagined the story to unfold.

Aren't we supposed to still have a-year-and-a-bit before Esperanza turns 18 and graduates from the Compassion program to continue our sponsorship of her? Isn't this visit supposed to be the start of cultivating an even deeper relationship with our Esperanza before she launches into adulthood?

Everything about this story's unexpected unfolding just seems to be wrong and unfair.

But I quickly snapped out of my pity-party when God reminded me that... these summer pilgrimages of ours aren't at all about our comfort and our preferences, it is all about our role in God's story of redemption --- His desire and gift for wholeness, for us and for all we come in contact with.

A few days before our departure, God impressed this verse from Isaiah 52:7 on my heart --- “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of the messenger who brings good news, the good news of peace and salvation, the news that the God of Israel reigns!”

How fitting as Guatemala is a country of beautiful mountains! Side note: My very sore legs sure were not impressed with me at the end of each day during our trip. ;)

With those words from Isaiah 52:7 in mind, we knew we needed to go with hearts ready "to see, to know, to touch, to understand --- with an openness of mind and heart" --- because that is what a pilgrimage is.

Visit Days, July 30 and 31...
These days couldn't come fast enough. They were smack right in the middle of our 10 days in Guatemala. We left Guatemala City very early in the morning. After 8 hours of driving through winding mountain roads, yes... e-i-g-h-t long hours!, we arrived at GU-996, Palestina Child Development Center, in the mountainous community of Chisec, Alta Verapaz, during the mid-afternoon.

A large group of children lined a pathway towards the church building to welcome us. It was the most awesome welcome I've ever experienced!

This Compassion project serves an indigenous Mayan community whose people speak the Queqchi dialect and whose highest education level is Grade 6. It is run by the local church, Iglesia Bautista Palestina, led by Pastor Javier and Project Director Martin. Pastor Javier's vision for this Compassion project is "to show the way of truth in Jesus, teaching registered boys and girls how to generate income for their families." They have almost 300 registered Compassion kids!

Esperanza, her family and Pastor Javier only speak Queqchi. Project Director Martin speaks both Queqchi and Spanish. Our host from Compassion Guatemala, Ruth, speaks Spanish and English (very good English, in fact!) and we only speak English (plus understand a few basic words in Spanish). All that to say, there was a four-way translation going on which made for a very interesting way to communicate.

We came to the end of the children-lined pathway and there was our Esperanza. Also there was her mother Doña Maria and her husband of one month, Hernan. Hernan is 18, just a year older than her.

Everyone enjoyed a lunch of Pollo Campero and Domino's Pizza which we brought up from the City of Coban for them. Coban is a two-and-a-half-hour drive away so these luxuries are virtually inaccessible for the people in this community especially since the bus fare to go there and back is $10 per person and the average income is $3 a day! We would later learn that Esperanza has only been to Coban three times in her entire life!

We chatted over lunch and as I learned more about their way of life, I realized that when we are willing "to see, to know, to touch, to understand --- with an openness of mind and heart" --- and when we don't overlay our first-world template on everything, we start to see things in a very different light.

Esperanza belongs to an indigenous Mayan community. They still largely live a typical Mayan life --- they are farmers, most are not formally educated, the majority start a family at a very early age. Esperanza's grandmother, in her mid-60s, is already a great-grandmother to a teenage girl!

My first-world mind couldn't fathom how this ancient way of life is still in existence today. But my first-world heart silently longed for the simplicity that this way of life seem to offer. Though I was pleasantly surprised to see that our Esperanza owns a cell phone! :)

These two young women... their worlds couldn't be more opposite from each other.
Yet both are infinitely, equally and uniquely loved by our Heavenly Father.

So... while being married and having a baby at age 17 might be foreign to me as a first-world citizen, it is quite normal to them in this Mayan way of life.

While being married and having a baby at age 17 would seemingly spell disaster for a teenager in this first-world which we call home, Esperanza is merely entering the logical next step of life as is expected of her in this Mayan community which she calls home.

Logical? To Esperanza, yes! 

When you are only fluent in an ancient Mayan dialect that is only understood within your own Mayan community and when you don't know very much Spanish...

When you've earned just a Grade 4 education at age 17, even though it already is much better than those who didn't even get any formal education...

When you know your future is to live and work in this community which you call home...

When all of the above is true, the next logical step for you is to start a family. 

Yes, even at age 17.

And this is where the beauty of Compassion's ministry comes in: Even though Esperanza is now leaving the Compassion program, the church will continue to be there for her as she starts a family. It will be just like she never left the program. Her support network remains intact. The difference truly is Jesus!

After lunch, we had the opportunity to tour the facilities at this Compassion project. The children were in their classrooms being taught Bible truths, learning some Spanish, singing, dancing. The facilities are honestly the poorest I have seen in all of our visits to Compassion projects... but the joy evident on the children's faces and the enthusiasm of the teachers truly exude Jesus!

In fact, this region has the most extreme poverty we've seen in all of our travels. We were told that this region is known as the forgotten region... forgotten by the government, forgotten by humanitarian agencies. Thankfully, not forgotten by Compassion International!  
The Maya Q’eqchi’ in Alta Verapaz suffer some of the worst poverty and health conditions in the country. Nearly 90% of the very poor are indigenous, subsistence farmers living on mountainous terrain. 
Then, we were invited to visit Esperanza's family home. I must say that it also is the poorest of all the homes we've seen of our sponsored children. Yet, the sense of family is so strong. Everyone gathered around when we arrived, several generations of family.

Grandma was boiling corn on the fire to make tortilla with. Father was just home from the farm. Sisters and brothers milled about. Children and babies played together. Like a little community in and of itself!

My boy was thrilled to be able to ride in the back of this pick-up truck on the way to Esperanza's house!

It is Esperanza's hope that she and Hernan can build a house right there in her family's homestead so that he can help farm their land. Her homestead is also more accessible from the main road. Hernan's family lives in an even more remote area where one has to cross a river to get home so it is a less ideal place to raise a family. It is our desire to help Esperanza's hope become a reality --- "a mutual embrace of life as it can be." 

Time flew and it was soon time for us to leave as we still had a two-and-a-half-hour drive back to Coban where we were staying the night.

I will always remember the goodbye hug that I exchanged with Esperanza. She clutched my shirt so tight and wouldn't let go. It truly felt like a last goodbye...

Hubby took this opportunity to counsel Hernan to love and take care of our Esperanza. That exchange made my heart smile.

As we gathered around to pray, as is the custom of this community everyone prayed out loud all at once. It was such a powerful moment, beautifully sacred, brought me to tears, like we were on holy ground --- "a mutual embrace of life as it can be."

As I went to sleep that night at the hotel in Coban, I couldn't help but be deeply grateful that God orchestrated to have us say our final goodbye to Esperanza in person. Not a final letter, but an actual face-to-face, skin-to-skin goodbye.

As our Compassion host, Ruth, so eloquently said, "I firmly believe that Esperanza’s life will not be the same and that there is a higher purpose for you being able to meet her."

So very true. And... I believe that our lives won't be the same either --- "a mutual embrace of life as it can be." As I laid on that hotel bed, utterly exhausted, physically and emotionally, from the day's events, my heart was overwhelmed with joy --- and I smiled, realizing... ah, yes... this is that wild joy that follows our yes to God!
And like all pilgrimages, you cannot remain the same at the end of such a journey. Pilgrimages lead you to reflect on your own identity and purpose.
The next day, we had a couple more hours with Esperanza as we arranged for her, Hernan, Doña Maria and Juan, a Compassion project staff, to come into the City of Coban to join us for breakfast at McDonald's! Can you believe she's never eaten at McDonald's before?!? Perhaps that's a good thing, don't you think?!? ;)

After breakfast we took them to Paiz, a store owned by Walmart, so that we could get Esperanza some groceries. Very soon after, it was time for the actual final goodbye...

Words aren't adequate to describe that final goodbye... it was like a piece of my heart stayed behind there with Esperanza. Imagine leaving your pregnant teenager knowing you won't ever see her again nor will you know what her baby looks like. Yeah, that.

But it was there, as I tearfully and fervently waved goodbye, that I saw esperanza. Yes... I saw hope.
Yet I still dare to hope when I remember this: The faithful love of the Lord never ends! His mercies never cease. Great is his faithfulness; his mercies begin afresh each morning. ~ Lamentations 3:21-23.  
Because we serve a God who is always good and we are all His beloved. He loves Esperanza infinitely more than I ever can. He holds her in the palm of His hand... and she knows that, largely because of Compassion's ministry in her life through the local church since she was just a little girl.

As she walked towards the store's exit, I watched her go. She turned around to wave as often as she could. As she disappeared around the corner, she waved one last time and tears started to fall from my eyes and my heart was simultaneously overwhelmed with deep gratitude... 

Because, the difference truly is Jesus! 

At the Compassion Guatemala office.

With our Compassion host, Ruth.
She served with the love of Jesus, going beyond what her "job" entailed and did it with such obvious joy!

With Compassion Guatemala's Country Director, Jose Carlos Prem.

Friends, will you sponsor a child with Compassion today? 
~ Canadian friends, please click here.
~ All others, please click here.

:: :: ::

Five days later, as our plane descended into Toronto, I uttered this prayer of my heart...

Until next time, Guatemala! God has used this beautiful country and its people to impact our family in a very profound way. I think we're going to soon be looking for another Guatemalan girl to sponsor, a Compassion sister for our Esperanza!

Compassion is a command, an act of worship, a song of thanks to Him.
Do justice. Love mercy. Walk humbly with God!


  1. This is beautiful - God is good even in the hardest of circumstances. I cannot even imagine what your heart felt as you said goodbye. How incredibly special that you got to go and meet her and encourage her at the beginning of this new journey.

  2. What a precious visit.... God's hand is so clearly evident!! I bet that was so encouraging to Esperanza and her new husband to visit with you all face to face!